11

Faster than a speeding bullet

Life is blazing past me, in a whirlwind of joy and frustration, dancing, singing, and really cool work. 

And the flowers Butter chose for Mother’s Day are still gorgeous. 

  

Like, breathtakingly gorgeous. 

So I pause. And soak it in. And continue scurrying just as fast as I can. 

As we do. 

18

On Close Calls and Near Misses

My children’s fondest aims for a long day with no school is to go with Mom to work. 

Mostly because I work in cafes with a computer. And my favorite cafes have both donuts and burritos. Life is good. 

So Tuesday morning the darling five year old packed his briefcase with Richard Scarry, notebook and pen, and a pair of matchbox trucks. For work. He settled in next to me, in the place I know way too well but am very productive. He waited for his bagel, and stared at all the MacBooks around us. 

My coffee had just cooled to perfect temperature when the neighbor to my right needed more space. I moved my coffee and laptop a bit and offered to help Butter take the dust jacket off his book. 

He struggled and his hand slipped. My stainless steel bottle tipped and fell. Twenty ounces of 110 degree coffee and frothy almond milk flooded into my keyboard. 

(Shut it, environmentalists. Dairy takes just as much water to produce, and almond milk is what I want for eleventy reasons, none of which are your beeswax.)

All the Mac users gasped as the coffee fell, pooling in my keyboard. I gasped. And grabbed a towel from Charley, the mom of three who had just made my son’s bagel. I sopped and wiped coffee. I checked in with other customers to make sure we hadn’t ruined their electronics. I tilted my laptop to the side to release another eight ounces, swirling and perfect, onto the table. 

I smiled at my son, who looked worried or shocked; I was too horrified to note which. 

“Whoa. That is a big spill. Are you hurt? I’m not hurt. These people aren’t hurt. My laptop is probably broken. But we can go to a computer mechanic to find out. Come with me, please.”

In the car we talked about how some things cost a lot of money, but they’re still just things. That being healthy and together is more important than my work, even though I would now have more work to do. I told him when things break it doesn’t matter as long as we have each other.

And I did the math in my head: taxes already submitted. Two client deadlines and a conference paper submitted the night before. A week since last backup. Copies of all photos on SD cards and backup drives. 

I wasn’t happy. But I wasn’t scared or mad. I was grateful. 

Butterbean started to say something, then changed his mind. 

“It’s okay,” I said. “You can tell me anything.”

“Well, I’m a little glad your computer broke. Because I want you to stop working.”

Should have seen this talk coming. I never, ever used the computer when Peanut was little. If he was awake, I focused on him. Not true of this little man. This one gets full attention when he asks for it. But he really does have to ask. 

“Yeah,” I said. “I understand that I’ve been working a lot lately and you don’t like me to ignore you. But the nice thing about my work right now is I know it’s coming, so I’m going to work away from home and a babysitter will play with you and pay attention to you. And then, when I’m home, I will be really home. And with you. And not my computer.”

He seemed satisfied. 

The computer is fried, but the data is intact. The tech says he’s never seen anything like it. Clearly submerged in coffee, but retrievable information. 

Hello, metaphor for my life right now. 

Similarly drowning, but similarly available to recall the important stuff. 

Kind of nailing it, despite being a hot mess. 

15

A recipe for family

I’ve been missing my grandmas this month, having lost one twenty years ago and another a month ago.

So I’ve been baking all their favorite recipes.

On St. Patrick’s Day I made my sweet Rose’s soda bread. I first made it right after college, living in Boston, when a St. Patrick’s Day card from my mom made me call her in a panic because it would be my first year since age four without her famous Irish soda bread.

The recipe is still on the back of that Snoopy card from my mom, though the See’s cocoa-and-nougat Irish potatoes that accompanied it are long gone.

My kids love the family’s soda bread. I love the bread. It’s one of our Springtime rituals. And for the first time in twenty years, my soda bread tasted terrible. It was dry and crumbly.

I felt I’d failed grandma.

She will likely forgive me, since she’s a swell old gal, and was known to muddle perhaps one recipe a year herself. And because I never question her patience with and love for me. Ever.

But that recipe got me thinking about all my heirloom recipes. My great grandmother’s honey cakes, the recipe for which my aunt gave me on my wedding day, nestled in the sterling silver tiers on which she used to serve them. My uncle’s crepes, a special treat for the kids the morning after thanksgiving, which we wolfed down as the grownups lolled about in sleeping bags and we giggled at how much powdered sugar we could keep off the table by just licking it off the thin pancakes.

During this nostalgic romp through my food memories, I found my beloved grandmother’s Crested Butte Chocolate Cake recipe. I love this recipe. I used to swear by this recipe to impress and nourish the friends who made me feel adored. But since a treasured aunt, my godmother, gave me the phenomenal Moosewood Cooks at Home, I’ve been making their 6-Minute Chocolate Cake. To the exclusion of my grandmother’s old standby, and my favorite.

Finding the cocoa-dusted recipe cards for this cake made my week.

I made my nieces this wonderful cake for a family celebration of birthdays and loss. To celebrate the end of a very stressful month. To celebrate my son turning five. To celebrate love and life. And grandmas.

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Yes, he cut his own piece. And he ate a every bite.

9

Like Butter

“Mom, the reason I don’t like sunshine is that it feels like butter, and I don’t like butter. It even looks like butter at sun coming down time. Look! Butter. Blech”
—-Butter, age 5.

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Happy birthday, you crazy little freakball of poetry and love!

9

Super Fly

As Peanut developed his birthday present wish list this year, he got engaged in a writing project in class. They’re working on nonfiction writing, and are researching to become experts, then writing a book with catchy chapter titles. It’s incredible to watch.

Peanut chose to cultivate expertise in carnivorous plants. We worked together on how to group the information. Should Venus flytraps be their own chapter? Should all pitcher plants be their own chapter? Should the plant types come up only incidentally as he writes about the ways in which carnivorous plants lure, catch, and digest their prey?

One morning, on a hike, a lovely friend asked Peanut what he was working on in school. And as he explained it, another friend turned to me and asked if we knew about the local carnivorous plant nursery. What in the holy awesome?!…No, we didn’t.

Then that night, a brainy science-y toy catalog came in the mail. Peanut leafed through and found a carnivorous plant terrarium. What in the amazing coincidence?!….Cool!

I didn’t know you can just go to Sonoma County and buy a Venus flytrap and a sundew. I didn’t know you could have them in and around your home. Neither, it turns out, did my expert. He thought they were magical tropical rarities, not local realities.

So I offered to take him and to buy some plants for his birthday. He lit up like a dancer allowed backstage at the Nutcracker.

The guy who toured us around the nursery got his first bug-devouring plant when he was 11. And he still has it.

Peanut is 9. And now is the proud owner of a pitcher plant, sundew, and Venus flytrap. Not the WKRP kind. The real kind.

He even talked me into getting his brother a carnivorous plant. Because he’s awesome that way.

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pitcher plant half full of insect devouring acid. Now living on my desk in case of trolls.

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Small people mining the yard for flytrap prey. Together. Without fighting. Nothing brings brothers together like sacrificing insects to plants.

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The three Musketeers, saving us from wayward aphids one drop of acid at a time.

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Venus Flytrap. Note the shriveled, black head at about 4:00 on this plant. The heads can only close 2-3 times, and if they don’t catch something tasty, they go black. All heads go black, the plant dies. Somewhat like the dreams of academics.

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Sundew. All those droplets are acid. D. capillaris, for those who care. Pink sundew.

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Sundew for the brother. Cape sundew. D. capensis. Proud devourer of six aphids this afternoon. Score!

8

I love you more than Oakland

“Mommy, I love you more than werewolves, more than the full moon, more than San Francisco, more than the Golden Gate Bridge, more than super tall buildings, more than boats, more than Muni, more than Oakland, more than Berkeley, more than El Cerrito, more than air. And you know what? I bet you love me more than even that.”

Yes. I do.

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11

Yin and Yang

Writing on the circle of life is trite and cliche, but here I am again, a year later, with another birthday/deathday post.

Last year my friend died on my youngest son’s birthday. The end of one life at 44 and celebration of 4 years for another offered a roller coaster of emotion that forced me into hyperawareness. I took 450 photos at the beach that day, and kept 85. I can recall the physical position of my body for each of those 85, and how many tears or deep breaths followed each.

This year my eldest is having a birthday on the same day we bury my grandmother. The morning included giggles and chess and special treats. The midday involved tears and reciting prayers, hugging and trying to tolerate loved ones. And traffic. Jesus Farnsworth Christ, the traffic. Then laughter and french toast dinner and gifts and a long chapter book.

My brain almost shut down with exhaustion that night, having stimulated every single part of my neuro-cognitive-emotive mind, from memory to emotion to quantum physics and stifled Church giggles. (Seriously, if you tell a group of Irish Catholics that the response to the interstitial prayers is ‘Lord, have mercy,’ you can’t help but laugh when, by the fourth round, they’re all saying, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ Such is religious Pavlovian response, and I reserve the right to laugh out loud, even at a solemn event, when my brother shrugs and says, ‘Lord, hear our prayer and also have mercy.’)

The nature of life is death. We know this. But there are quite a few days of full-blown glorious life before we reach our eventual death, even if we die, as my friend did, painfully young. The counterbalance to joy is sorrow. And exhaustion. My sorrow on this birthday-deathday was keenest at the point in my reading where I said, “look at all she has left.” Because I was lucky enough to have a grandma whom I adored, meet and love my children. I don’t know that life gets better than that. I really don’t. Accomplishments and glorious food and wondrous sunrises and breathtaking hikes…these pale beside the knowledge that my beloved lived long enough to love what I made. To forgive me my tresspasses as I forgave those who trespassed against me. To offer a sign of peace.

Peace be with you. And also with every single person on this planet, amen. Please. Every single person, forgetting none. Genuine peace. Thank you. Amen.

Of course it’s hard to have a memorial, regardless of circumstance; and it was particularly hard to have a memorial on the day my amazing baby turns Nine. I felt I couldn’t fully mourn because I had a cake to make, a boy to cherish, a life to live. Nobody is fond of death. We rarely talk about it, except when we need a cathartic release of all the stress and pain woven into our daily lives. You can’t cry about a tough meeting, but you can cry about your grandma’s stroke. You can’t cry about the pressures of co-parenting with a person with priorities so completely different you wonder why you ever made it past the first date, but you can cry that your friend died too young, leaving his children irreparably altered. This sorrow, though, is always tempered by the joys of life. Nobody’s death is all of another person’s life. We all have parts of ourselves untouched by even the closest loves. I feel guilty that part of my life are seemingly undisturbed by grandma’s death, just as I feel guilty that parts of my life don’t change just because my children live, thrive, grow, and blossom.

As hard as it is to say goodbye, I loved my grandmother. That’s richer than chocolate mousse. She loved me. That’s sweeter than clean, clear water on a hot day. We told each other we loved and appreciated one another. That’s better than gold. Heck, that’s better than applause. I saw her a few days before her stroke, and brought her a favorite treat that she enjoyed with marked pleasure, despite all her frustrations about not being able to read, walk, or hear as she wanted to. She high-fived my son and told me stories from her time as a young mother, a time when women had to quit their jobs once they married because employers assumed marriage was for childbearing, women were exclusive childrearers, and work was for men. It was a good visit. And it was one of hundreds.

I’d still really like one more talk with her. Or ten. Or maybe one thousand. Yes. One thousand more talk, please.

We are a miracle, my family. Your family is one, too, with all its blemishes and warts and struggles and eases. We are miraculous because of those who came first, who built, and who endured.

My grandmother did these with style and grace.

"My mom used to say, 'Am I responsible for all this?'"

“My mom used to say, ‘Am I responsible for all this?'”

And so in honor of my dear, sweet grandma, I offer a birthday card. Because life doesn’t stop, even when there is pain, even when there is sorrow. In fact, life becomes more sweet, and I pay even closer attention.

Happy next phase, grandma. May your next eternity be peaceful, restful, exciting, and funny. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, forever.

Happy, happy birthday to my incredible, hilarious, impressive Nine Year Old. May your next 90 years be full of people like your Great Grandma: kind, understanding, resilient, and welcoming. And may you bring some piece of that to the people you meet, as well. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, too, forever.

Peanut, 2006-infinity and beyond.

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And

Rose 1916-2015.

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14

Nostalgia

Every evening as I go to bed, I want the day back to do over. I want to adore my kids more than I do. And I certainly do. But the day gets in the way and I only fawn all over them for moments, not endless hours. I want to pay attention more than I do. Sure, I notice the sights and sounds and smells and am absorbing every day of jasmine and wisteria season. But I want to notice and feel and absorb even more.

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I want to laugh more than I do. I want to play more than I do. I want to revel more than I do. I want more from each moment.

While we’re asking for ponies and unicorn tears, I want 30 hours in each day.

I want my babies back. When they were tiny and helpless I devoured every moment. And I was exhausted and impatient and frustrated and raw. So I want that time back to memorize and be less exhausted and completely perfect. I want the highlights reel to be the whole thing.

I feel nostalgia so keenly lately. Deep into my knees, through my spine, up my arms. There’s a sensation just before a child is injured, or just before I’m sure they’ll be injured: an electric shock from my navel to my extremities and back again that levitates me momentarily. And experience that same feeling in coveting rituals from my childhood.

I decided last month that I need to redouble my efforts to create rituals for my kids. My family. Intentional, repeatable events that bespeak our values. More than holiday traditions, I want weekend traditions and weekday traditions. I want to cultivate our community of supporters and I want us to nurture them, too; I want art and music and volunteering and adventures that form the core of who we all are.

I mentioned the 30 hours, right? Those extra minutes are key to some of my plans.

My grandfather would sit every night at the dining table, breathing the cool desert air coming in from the kitchen door, surgically altering grapefruits in preparation for our breakfast. Sometimes in the crackle glazed ombré blue bowls, sometimes rippled white with burgundy flowers, sometimes, I believe, wooden bowls that seemed more like sanded coconut shells than bowls. I only saw him prepare the honeyed, halved grapefruit once, when I was considerably older, but I know for a fact that every night he held a paring knife and carefully excised the membranes from each section of grapefruit.

IMG_2521-0.JPGEach triangle detached carefully along the rind, down one wall, and then the other wall. Dozens of cuts, all around each fruit bite. Then on to the next bowl. Rarely piercing the skin, rarely allowing any pith to adhere to the fruit. Very rarely. We never struggled to get our citrus out of the rind with the bamboo-handled grapefruit spoons.

He split one grapefruit in two when it was just him and grandma. And extra two fruits, four halves, when we visited. At least thrice a year, sometimes more, with each parent in turn, beneficiaries of the brilliantly embracing love that was articulated to their daughter-in-law, my mother, as part of a permanent friendship cemented with, “we are not divorcing you. We rather like you and we love our grandchildren. Please, please: come see us. And always let them come see us.”

Oh, we did. Early mornings playing tennis, picking pecans from the trees. Eating honeyed, cold grapefruit from the bowls kept in the refrigerator overnight, careful not to spill any on the checked blue and white tablecloth, not because they cared about spills, flawless and jovial and kind as they always were, but because spilling mesquite-honey-sweetened grapefruit juice would be a tragic loss in our little lives.

Yes, playing tennis behind the Virgin Mary’s faded back, heat and dogs and lizards and piano and afternoon monsoons and grandma’s favorite blouses and Indian food and slideshows from their latest trip to exotic and wondrous places.

And I ache for those days so intensely it makes my knees weak and my eyes hot.

So last month I started making my family sectioned, chilled, honey drizzled grapefruit every night that I can. I judge myself harshly for not starting sooner. They need rituals. They need to know who we are.

And I got tennis racquets on sale. I try to sneak pecans into all their food so the sweet, dusty taste of the desert gets into their blood. I have little doubt that if I found a faded, chipped Virgin Mary that matched theirs I would buy it.

I make them some of my maternal grandma’s cream of potato soup. They’ve had it before, but now that she’s nearing the end I bought a 10 pound bag of potatoes and lots of cream.

A few months ago we made a version of my paternal grandma’s donuts. I varied the recipe only because I’m not deep frying in my kitchen. Hell no.

And we’re having daily sectioned grapefruit.

I realize I don’t have to do all this myself. How ludicrous. The little things their five grandparents and two great grandparents share with them will form memories, good or bad. I don’t have to force my memories into my children’s DNA. They will make their own.

I’m sure someone will force my children to watch interminable slide shows on a Kodak carousel, projected onto a retractable screen, and that they’ll roll their eyes and submit, only to revise history to adore being exposed to such culture and knowledge. Right? No? Something something YouTube, something something video game? Bah.

I just know someone will teach my children to make grapefruit meringue pie and will let them lick the beaters before feeding the dogs their nightly ice cream. Right? No? Something something premade dough, something something no human food for pets? Humbug.

Well, certainly, someone will teach my boys to play tennis and ride horses and catch horny toads and navigate the slip’n’slide and play gin rummy the proper way and Scrabble with an unabridged dictionary.

Right?

Yup. I will. Let the grandparents fill our lives with whatever they value. I’m filling our days with Bob and Anne, Rose and Jack.

Because that, and some fresh air, is what we all need.

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12

Ah, to be almost five

“Mommy, I have the best story ever. Wanna hear it?
You and Daddy and me and Peanut were at the playground. And I had a yellow juice in my tummy that I could spray all over. And make people die. And then we collected the bones to use for pretend fighting.”
—-Butterbean, age four years and eleven months

19

When the End Is All Wrong

For ninety-nine years my grandmother has been a tough, kind, gentle, funny, fierce, wonderful woman.

For my whole life she’s been my model of forgiveness and unconditional love.

For decades she has missed her husband keenly but has found joy in her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

For years she has been saddened by a body that does less and less of what she wants. Now unable to read, hear, follow television shows, play piano, or walk well, she has still found a reason to see the bright side. She’s the champion of silver linings. Not Pollyannaesque. But genuinely grateful for her lucky and blessed life.

I saw her Monday. She was sleepy after a rough night but she still told good stories. She still fawned all over my son. She perked up comedically for the Acme sourdough cheese roll I brought her. She loves to eat.

Wednesday she had a major stroke. She’s had small strokes before. But this time her left side is useless. Her speech is slurred and swallowing is compromised. She’s very conscious and very pissed.

She’s ninety-nine years old; long-term rehab isn’t in the cards, even if she were cooperative, which, thank heavens, she’s not. Because the only thing that makes being that old any fun is telling people you refuse to do what they tell you.

I am grateful to have her in my life. I’m grateful for the ways in which she has and does bring my family together. I’m grateful I saw her two days ago.

I don’t want this to be her end, not because I hoped she’d live forever, though I did until the last few years showed how threadbare living had become for her. I don’t want this to be her end because this is the wrong ending.

Quickly, silently, napping in the sun in the family room is the right end. Quickly, painlessly on the car ride home from a remarkable family gathering is the right end.

Immobile, unable to eat or talk, unable to do anything well that means something to her? Fighting for a glass of water to be told that good old dashing water isn’t in the cards for you anymore? Thickened water, whatever the fuck that means? That is the wrong story. I want to write her a different story.

How selfish I am. A wonderful woman lives a wonderful life full of love, and I have the audacity to complain about her frailty at age ninety-nine? In a world replete with poverty and hatred, wars, inequality, wide-scale Othering that hastens if not caused deaths all over the globe daily, I have the gall to ask for a different demise for a cheerful, privileged grandma?

Yes. I have that gall. I am that selfish.

She told my mom a year ago that she wanted to read my book. It isn’t done. I told my her it isn’t done. You won’t like it, I said; let me finish it. She can’t read now. She could a few months ago, in the afternoon sunlight with big print. But now not even that.

I need time to make a time machine and go back and finish my book and print it large and give it to her. Ten years ago. Two years ago. Two months ago.

Two days ago.

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I’ll go see her in a couple of days when hospice has figured out the details and she’s settled. When I stop gagging over the idea of thickened water. When I have some good stories to tell.

Because she deserves to hear some good stories now. Once she’s done high-fiving my kids.

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5

Things I Don’t Recommend

So here’s the thing about excellent art…it disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. Right?

Nope. It disturbs and comforts those who are porous yet washes unchanged over those who have no capability for human feeling.

And since this month has broken pieces off my psyche, I’m feeling particularly porous.

Unfortunately, I’ve been reading exactly the wrong books this year. By the end of January I was hopping back and forth frequently between Neverwhere and The Bone Clocks.

Want to know what you should avoid when feeling a bit…off?

Novels whose primary effect on you might, perhaps, be

OH MY GOD THE WORLD IS A LIE AND SENTIENCE IS ILLUSION AND THE DARKEST, MOST SINISTER PARTS OF US WILL BE THE THREADS THAT RISE ABOVE AND DOMINATE OUR BETTER IMPULSES, FOR THIS IS THUNDERDOME!

are not the best choice.

Maybe.

Excellent books, though. Look into them when life is all sunshine and buttercups. Or if you’re not easily swayed by minor apocalypses.
<br /

11

Eyes open, head up

On a hike with a friend Monday I saw
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And on a walk to clear my head Tuesday I absorbed

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And on a run Wednesday I was ignored by

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And on a run Thursday I spied

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Paying attention is my favorite thing ever.

4

Filling the Spaces

One of the unexpected journeys in the process of separation is reorganization. Not just reconfiguration of stuff, but of ideas and intention and meaning.

A third of the furniture goes, a quarter of the closets empty, much of the cupboards’ contents thin…there’s more space. And in those spaces there’s a lot of unearthed treasure. It’s as though the furniture has been emptied, unbolted from the wall, and moved to the center of the room. Now I get to put everything back together a different way and collect the little treasures that fell into the gaps years ago. Pennies, dust, LEGO wheels, and a long-lost photograph all reward my efforts at fixing what doesn’t feel right.

Since the house has less in it, I’ve realized what I do and don’t use, what is and isn’t important, where I do and don’t feel comfortable. Connection to what feels right waxes and wanes; excitement over exploring the spaces I find and sense of home I create is ephemeral. While the boys are awake, the house is full of life and noise and life. And it’s just right and too much all at the same time. While I work the house fades away and I’m in a known, safe place playing to my skills. When there’s no work and no children, I’m puzzled by the lack of flow around me. The books are in the wrong places and I need to reorganize. The bed drawers stick and I’m suddenly just enraged that I don’t have a dresser. I buy one and build it and feel triumphant, trying to create a new space that is all mine and fits just right. Then, in settling into the newness, I notice something else that is all wrong and needs a good reconfiguring.

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The roller coaster in and out of discomfort isn’t about stuff, of course. It’s not a function of dresser or lack of dresser. The issue is not that few of the projects boxed in the garage are ever going to see the light of day, nor is the real problem that I don’t even know how to begin purging those old projects.

The sense of unease comes from not knowing which parts of my life to keep. Do I want to be more of the old me, the person from before the marriage? Am I some of those parts plus other facets I shaped with my husband and with my kids? Have I completely shed the pre-Spouse self and now need to crawl out of the marital shell as a completely new person? That’s a lot of pressure to metamorphose. Am I what I choose now to keep and what I ditch? Do I have to define myself right now, today, or can I actually give myself some time, try things out, explore and evaluate? Is unknowing exploration a quality only of youth, or am I allowed some leeway? If I buy a new dresser because the organization in my room is genuinely dreadful and not working for me, and I get gorgeous unfinished pine and paint it in glorious ways as a way to feel I own all my life changes, then I decide I hate it, can I just Craigslist my transition self and get a new one?

At least three friends are in the midst of the seeking, the sorting, the excavation; one is upset about the physical mess of splitting two merged lives into two separate lives.

The good and bad news is you can’t sort out who you are in an afternoon. Or a weekend. Or a month. You have to sit in the mess for a while. Parts of your house’s going to be a disaster as long as your heart, your head, and your life is a disaster. But in that disorganized clutter is a whole mess of opportunity.

This process isn’t like splitting a pizza dough recipe. There is no simple, William Sonoma tool for cleaving a family into two tidy sections. Not even in the annual parody.

But the messiness is an unexpected benefit of this process. Space to make changes, space to reevaluate, belongings dumped in a heap and begging to be evaluated. What’s working? What’s not? What do I need? Who I am?

In the empty and messy spaces, there is opportunity for new and opportunity for do-over. I don’t have to fill all the spaces right now. Or ever. I could leave them alone for a while. Wipe them clean and fill them with different ideas. Or shift endlessly. Consolidate and decorate and ponder. Try something and see how it goes. Put everything in boxes in the garage and donate them next year if I still don’t need them.

I’m excited to see what I find during the excavation, and how I fill or retain the spaces as I come across them. I can’t wait to sweep out the corners of my life I haven’t seen in years but that I’m slowing down to examine lately.

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